Situated eight miles from the scenic Roseland Heritage Coast and surrounded by tributaries of the River Fal, the Tregothnan country estate contributes more to Cornwall’s unique heritage landscape than just picturesque views. As well as being a private family home, it functions as a thriving tea plantation which is now hoping to use its resources to tackle the climate crisis.
Although it produced the first British tea crop in 2005, the estate has been harnessing the warm, wet microclimate unique to the region southeast of Truro for over 200 years. It owns the largest Botanic garden in Cornwall, pioneered by the Sixth Viscount Falmouth and his brother who began planting rare shrubs and trees, including an ornamental version of the tea crop, in the surrounding land of Tregothnan in the 19th century. Today, Camellia sinensis (the tea bush) thrives across both the estate and company plantations throughout southern Cornwall.
Bella Percy-Hughes, Tregothnan’s marketing manager, claims that the idyllic conditions of the south coast environment are crucial to the crop’s success, explaining that: ‘We have topography to provide shelter, drainage and irrigation. The inimitable microclimate brings morning mist, a lot of rain, and most days in Cornwall are actually warmer than the same day in Darjeeling, India.’ She explains that the warmth in the area comes from the deep-sea creek of the Fal Estuary. ‘At 18 metres, the plantations are naturally kept warm from underneath by the water in the estuary,’ she says. ‘Nowhere else has exactly this microclimate.’
Pioneering research is now being undertaken by the company in an attempt to prove the environmental benefits of their unique crop. It is thought that long-term, Camillia sinensis may be a highly successful carbon-capturing plant, which if planted in excess, could contribute to a reduction in levels of the harmful greenhouse gas. Tregothnan claims that thanks to the fast plucking of the bright green shoots by tea farmers during harvest, photosynthesis (the process that uses sunlight, water and carbon dioxide from the air to create energy for the plant) is accelerated, enhancing the carbon-capture process.
‘The carbon capturing capabilities of the evergreen tea bush are currently being analysed and preliminary results will be published in the autumn,’ says Percy-Hughes. There is hope that results will point towards a high level of carbon storage, beneficial at a time when the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide level is 410 parts per million, higher than at any point in the past 400,000 years.
Nevertheless, an enormous amount of tea would need to be planted to make even the slightest difference to atmospheric temperatures. A new report claims that planting forestry across 0.9 billion hectares of land would merely ‘buy us time’ in the fight against climate change, even though it could trap around 205 gigatonnes of carbon. Unless there is a noticeable reduction in the output of greenhouse gas emissions, there is perhaps little that increasing levels of terrestrial plant growth can achieve.
Tregothnan remains confident in its ability to have a positive impact on the environment, however. Percy-Hughes claims that ‘the obvious benefit to delivering homegrown tea to the nation of tea drinkers is the shortest possible food-miles. Emerging trends of fresh tea and new styles of tea can be delivered to the domestic UK market without needing to fly in the fresh leaf.’
It is estimated that the carbon footprint of a cup of tea is between 21-71g CO2e, depending on the brand and whether milk or sugar is added. Purchasing tea that has travelled fewer miles from bush to cup may indeed lower these figures, which, when approximately 100 million cups of tea are consumed every day in the UK, certainly add up.
‘Other areas of the estate are being appraised for beneficial farming methods including honey, flowers and other novel crops,’ adds Percy-Hughes. ‘Immediate observations include a dramatic reduction of runoff and zero soil erosion, increased bird cover, increasing soil humidity and elimination of chemical inputs.’
It appears that British tea could emerge as a truly sustainable long-term crop, with the world’s oldest bushes estimated to be over 1,000 years old. The Cornish tea industry may only just be taking flight, but Tregothnan believes the market for what it terms ‘the world’s first true English tea’ is already expanding, with Percy-Hughes concluding that ‘customers choose our British grown tea for the integrity of provenance, understanding more than ever about the process to get from bush to cup.’
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